JASC Paint Shop Pro 6

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With its improved Web functionality, image management, colour correction and its impressive new vector capabilities, Paint Shop Pro has matured into a serious all-round graphics solution.

Paint Shop Pro 6's vector text

Paint Shop Pro became the world's most popular - or at least the most  common - bitmap editor for two main reasons. To begin with, its range of  down-to-earth, functional features perfectly suited a huge section of the  market: hit-and-run users who occasionally needed to handle graphics but  who weren't really interested in top-of-the-range creative power. Rather  more important was the fact that, as shareware, Paint Shop Pro was readily  available and, if you could square it with your conscience, effectively  free.

With version 5 everything changed. With new professional features such as layer handling and CMYK colour control, Paint Shop Pro tried unconvincingly to move up market into Photoshop territory. At the same time it abandoned its shareware status to compete directly with other commercial packages such as Picture Publisher and PhotoImpact. Suddenly the program looked exposed as an under-powered wannabe trying to mix it with the big boys but with no real strengths of its own. Happily, with version 6 it looks as if the painful transition has come good with Paint Shop Pro finally shaking off its humble shareware origins to become a serious commercial contender.

Not that you'd immediately recognise this when the program loads. With its simplistic icons and awkward dialogs, Paint Shop Pro certainly isn't at the cutting edge of program design. Look more closely, however, and you'll find a whole host of minor usability improvements. The previous mix of spinners and sliders, for example, have all been replaced by a new numeric edit control while right-clicking on any colour box now calls up a swatch palette of recently used colours. Various dialogs have also been revamped, such as the Command History which at last offers multiple levels of redo as well as undo. The biggest change is to the Layers and Tool Options palettes which are both now tabbed and which can be set to automatically roll-up when not in use to maximize your working space - though thankfully if this gets on your nerves you can force them to remain open. The end result is that while the Paint Shop Pro environment remains old-fashioned compared to rivals like PhotoImpact (see page ) it's also reasonably efficient.

More than this, Paint Shop Pro offers one interface feature that other programs simply can't match - its browser. With Photoshop you're lucky if you get a single file preview before opening an image, but with Paint Shop Pro's browser you can quickly generate preview thumbnails of entire directories of images. With full 24-bit previews, tool-tip style information on image size and format, thumbnail selection capabilities, drag-and-drop support and right-click access to the most important file management commands, in many ways the browser works like a visually-oriented replacement for Windows Explorer.

Paint Shop Pro 6's browser

The Browser offers visual file management of multiple images - ideal for handling digital photos.

The browser is great for all image file management, but it really come into its own when dealing with digital photos where filenames are meaningless. With the browser left open as a palette in the background you can see all your shots, open those you need to work on, then print off a set of image thumbnails. With its direct support for digital cameras now extended to include just about every camera out there, Paint Shop Pro is determined to emphasize its PC photography credentials. Unfortunately it seems to have forgotten about what you'll want to do with your images after you've prepared them. With no album capabilities you can't catalogue and archive your photos let alone create slideshows and Web galleries.

Where Paint Shop Pro does shine compared to rival PC photography programs is in the editing power it provides over individual images. The control and flexibility that it offers derives largely from its use of layers. These were introduced in version 5 via a more or less straight copy of the functionality found in Photoshop's Layer palette. In fact Paint Shop Pro went one better than Photoshop by allowing the opacity, blend mode and transparency lock setting of all layers to be displayed and controlled rather than just the current one. In version 6 this more global approach has been further extended with dedicated tabs to show and control the masking and grouping status of all layers.

Paint Shop Pro 6's layer handling

The use of Photoshop-style layers gives absolute control over photo compositing and editing.

The compositing power of its layer system was more or less identical to Photoshop's, but Paint Shop Pro 5's implementation was missing a crucial factor: adjustment layers. These act like lenses applying colour correction effects to all layers below them in the stack. The beauty is that the effect is non-destructive as the underlying pixel values are not permanently altered which means that the effect can be edited and fine-tuned at any time. Paint Shop Pro 6 now offers a full range of levels, curves, brightness/contrast, colour balance, hue/saturation, channel mixer, invert, threshold and posterize adjustment layers providing a huge boost to the package's control, flexibility and creative potential.

Paint Shop Pro 6 has now largely caught up with Photoshop with its image and adjustment layers, but it leaves the market leader gasping with its latest layer-based feature. By default if you select the Draw and Preset Shape tools any object you add to your image is now stored on a vector layer. With in-built anti-aliasing it's initially difficult to see what the difference is to adding the lines and shapes as pixels, but this immediately becomes clear when you select the object with the new Vector Object Selection tool - you can now resize and rotate the object with no loss of quality. Moreover by right-clicking you can enter Node Edit mode and completely change the shape of your object or call up the Vector Properties dialog and instantly change line and fill formatting, again with no loss of quality.

Paint Shop Pro 6's vector handling

Paint Shop Pro now offers drawing capabilities through its vector layers.

This new vector-based flexibility and control is ideal for managing shapes in your image and Paint Shop Pro now offers fourteen major primitives from rectangles and ellipses through to polygons, stars and arrows. It's even better for managing text. Click on your image with the revamped Text tool and a new Text Entry dialog appears into which you can type your text and set parameters such as typeface, point size and colour on an character basis and alignment, kerning and leading on a paragraph basis. The beauty of the vector system is its editability, with the ability to resize and rotate the resulting text just like any other shape, or to call up the Properties dialog to change the text itself.

In fact the handling of text is so important that many other packages including Photoshop have already introduced their own re-editable text systems, so in many ways Paint Shop Pro's true vector text handling is only catching up with the competition. Where Paint Shop Pro leaves Photoshop and the others trailing is in its ability to add text to paths. This is simplicity itself as all you have to do is select an existing vector object with the Text tool and begin typing. All the text formatting options remain available so it's fairly easy to size the text to fit - which is just as well as there's no other control offered over placement, angle and so on. To create even more striking effects, text can be converted to fully editable curves.

Paint Shop Pro 6's vector text

Vector text is re-editable and can be fitted to any path.

When working in this way Paint Shop Pro feels much more like a drawing package than a paint program, but the beauty is that the vector control it offers is all available within a bitmap environment. This means that it's possible to combine the vector objects with unique pixel-based effects so that, for example, the overall opacity of the vector layer can be varied, or transparency interactively applied, or the blend mode changed. The creative potential this opens up is huge and, although the idea of vector handling within a bitmap program isn't new, Paint Shop Pro's layer-based approach is an elegant solution that is both powerful and simple.

Adding drawing-style editability and flexibility represents a quantum leap for traditional photo editors, but it's important not to get carried away. Paint Shop Pro's line and shape tools are a good start, but there's no interactive control, for instance over the radius of stars or the number of sides in a polygon. More disappointingly there's no way to combine shapes to create new shapes and compound paths. Also there's no way to automatically align and distribute objects. Most disappointing of all is the formatting control on offer which is largely limited to setting a line width and colour for outlines and a flat colour for fills. Don't expect to throw away your drawing package quite yet.

The lack of anything other than flat fills for vector objects is particularly unfortunate as this is an area that Paint Shop Pro 6 comprehensively addresses for its bitmap objects. Selecting any of the gradient options from the Flood Fill tool activates a new tab on the Tool Options palette from which you can choose a pre-designed effect, the desired angle and the number of times the effect should be repeated. For complete control you can call up the Gradient Editor in which you can set any number of colours and their mid-points together with a completely separate transparency overlay. Once you're happy with your effect you can save it for later re-use.

Another previous area of weakness that the latest Paint Shop Pro tackles is creative effects. Simple new additions include the ripple, twirl, warp and wave deformations and the blinds, kaleidoscope and weave effects. More advanced filters capable of more subtle effects include the Sculpture and Texture options which give images the appearance of being made from different materials ranging from embossed leather through to gold leaf. Even more control is offered over the two new Inner and Outer Bevel commands which allow everything from the bevel shape to the angle, colour, intensity and elevation of the light to be precisely controlled.

Paint Shop Pro 6's buttons

Paint Shop Pro's new bevel effects can only be applied to bitmaps not to vector elements.

These bevel settings can be saved and reused which is ideal for producing consistent Web navigation buttons, but sadly the effects are only available as permanent bitmap filters rather than as re-editable and restylable non-destructive layer effects. Even without layer effects, however, Paint Shop Pro's vector text and shape handling moves it onto a new level when it comes to designing Web graphics.

When it comes to outputting these images Paint Shop Pro has also greatly improved thanks to its new GIF and JPEG Export dialogs. These offer far more control than in the past with comprehensive settings for managing JPEG compression and for controlling the generation of the GIF image's palette including the ability to bias the palette towards the colours in the current selection. More importantly they provide an image preview and information on file size to enable a balance to be struck between image quality and download time.

Again though it's impossible not to feel let down. There's no control over individual colours in the GIF palette, for example, nor to bias output towards the Web safe colours. More importantly, the dialog's single preview means that you can't easily compare options, while the preview size is just too small to be able to judge image quality reliably. Most disappointing of all is the complete lack of HTML output which immediately rules Paint Shop Pro out from producing sliced image tables, rollovers or even basic image maps. When it comes to producing Web graphics, Paint Shop Pro 6 is fine for experimenting with the JPEGs and GIFs in your first home page, but you'll soon hit its limits if you get seriously involved in Web imaging.

At least there is one area of advanced Web graphics which Paint Shop Pro has fully addressed - the production of animated GIFs. Load an animated GIF into the bundled Animation Shop utility and all the frames of the animation appear in a single filmstrip ready for editing. In fact, without features like onion-skinning or painting across frames, Animation Shop's internal editing capabilities are pretty limited despite the introduction of new Line, Shape and Registration Mark tools.

If you need to edit an animation a much better solution is to take advantage of the new integration with Paint Shop Pro both for creating your animation in the first place and for later changes. Using the new "first and current" and "all previous" layer options on import you can automatically create frames that share a common background or that are built up cumulatively. To fine tune individual frames you can now drag and drop frames directly into Paint Shop Pro or, using the new Frame Export feature you can set up an ongoing link where changes can be automatically updated.

Paint Shop Pro 6's Animation Shop

The Animation Shop utility takes an effects-heavy filmstrip approach to GIF animation.

This tight integration is undoubtedly a big step forward but in fact, for most of the animations it produces, Animation Shop can happily work as a standalone program. This is because its real strength lies in its automatic transitions and effects. There are now over two dozen of these including new pinwheel, star wipe and sliding boxes transitions and shaky cam, stained glass and streaming effects. The new Banner Wizard is typical. This simply asks you to set the size, number of frames and background colour of your animation, to enter your text and finally to select a customisable effect from a drop-down list. Click OK and your animation is automatically produced for you ready for output either as an optimised GIF or now as a full 24-bit AVI. You might not have the precise interactive control offered by a program like ImageReady or Fireworks but you do have a whole range of eye-catching effects that these programs could never produce and which you can apply instantly.

With version 6's drive towards Web functionality, it's good to see that output to paper hasn't been forgotten. Selecting Paint Shop Pro's new Print Multiple command launches a print preview window in which all open files are shown as thumbnails down the left of the screen ready to be dragged onto the current page. Images can then be interactively resized and repositioned, while the Auto Image Placement option divides the page into a grid and distributes images accordingly. For some reason there's no easy option to automatically tile multiple versions of the current image, but at least layouts that you create manually can be saved and reused.

Overall, while other office-based packages such as the latest PhotoImpact take a more modern approach to photo-editing, Paint Shop Pro is at least moving in the right direction. Moreover, with new top-of-the-range features like its browser, interactive print preview and especially its vector-based drawing capabilities, Paint Shop Pro 6 has found some impressive and unique selling points to add to its core functionality. The program's still not a real rival to Photoshop but it's not that far off - especially when you consider the price. And now Paint Shop Pro can even show the master a trick or two.

Tom Arah

Features

5

Ease Of Use  

4

Value For Money  

4

Overall  

4

ratings out of 6

System Requirements: 486 or higher, 16Mb RAM, 10-40Mb of disk space, Windows 95, 98 or Windows NT 4.0, SVGA

Paint Shop Pro
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Tom Arah

November 1999


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